By Isabel Coles and Ahmed Rasheed
ARBIL/BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurdish forces will not engage in ground fighting in the Syrian town of Kobani but provide artillery support for fellow Kurds fending off Islamic State militants there, a Kurdish spokesman said on Sunday.
Islamic State fighters have been trying to capture Kobani for over a month, pressing on despite U.S.-led air strikes on their positions and the deaths of hundreds of their fighters.
The Kurds prepared to help their comrades in Syria as Iraqi government forces and Shi'ite militias advanced against the al Qaeda offshoot that wants to redraw the map of the Middle East.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in Syria's three-and-a-half-year-old conflict, said on Sunday it had confirmed that 815 people had been killed in the fighting for Kobani over the last 40 days - more than half of them Islamic State fighters.
The Kurdish region's parliament voted last week to deploy some of its peshmerga forces, which have been fighting their own battle against Islamic State in northern Iraq, to Syria.
"Primarily, it will be a back-up support with artillery and other weapons," Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) spokesman Safeen Dizayee told Reuters. "It will not be combat troops as such, at this point anyway."
Islamic State militants shelled Kobani's border post with Turkey overnight but were repulsed by Kurdish fighters, Kurdish officials and a monitoring group said on Sunday.
"Of course they will try again tonight," said Idris Nassan, a local Kurdish official. "Last night they brought new reinforcements, new supplies, and they are pushing hard."
IRAQI FORCES GAIN
Iraqi security forces backed by Shi'ite militias gained some momentum at the weekend in their bid to loosen the grip of Islamic State, which controls large swathes of territory in the north and west of the major OPEC oil producer.
Iraqi government forces backed by Shi'ite militias retook four villages on Sunday near the Himreen mountains overlooking Islamic State supply lines some 100 km (60 miles) south of the oil city of Kirkuk, security officials said.
They also drove Islamic State militants out of Jurf al-Sakhar, just south of Baghdad, while Kurdish fighters regained control over the town of Zumar in the north.
Sunni insurgents have been moving fighters, weapons and supplies from western Iraq through secret desert tunnels to Jurf al-Sakhar, Iraqi officials have said. Now it appears government forces may be able to disrupt that network.
Roadside bombs and booby-trapped houses hampered their progress near the Himreen mountains, security officials. "We have decided to make slow advances. We hold the ground, set up watch towers, clear the explosives and build sand barriers to prevent the armed men from returning," army major Ahmed Nu'aman told Reuters by telephone.
BATTLE FOR KOBANI
Last week, Ankara said it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters passage through Turkish territory to reach besieged Kobani.
Syrian Kurdish forces defending Kobani say heavier weaponry is vital to fighting the better armed Islamic State fighters.
They have asked for armour-piercing missiles able to destroy the tanks and other armoured vehicles used by Islamic State.
The Syrian Kurds said weapons airdropped to them by the U.S. air force last week were not enough to defeat Islamic State. U.S. officials had described those weapons, which were supplied by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, as "small arms".
In a separate interview with Reuters on Sunday, the chief of staff to the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said the peshmerga were ready to depart as soon as a timetable had been finalised with Ankara and Kurds in Syria.
Fuad Hussein said he expected the 155 peshmerga fighters to move "one of these days".
Asked about the weapons the peshmerga would take, Hussein described them as "semi-heavy" and said they would enable the lightly armed Kurdish fighters in Kobani to counter Islamic State's tanks and armoured vehicles.
The battle for Kobani has taken on major political significance for Turkey, whose own Kurds have been infuriated by Ankara's reluctance to intervene, threatening to derail a peace process between the government and separatist guerrillas.
On the prospect of further deployments to Kobani, Dizayee said: "It all depends on how things go on the ground. I think this should and can be discussed at a later point."
Iraqi forces are slowly trying to undermine Islamic State in operations like the one near the Himreen mountains.
It is designed to isolate Islamic State fighters controlling the towns of Jalawla and Saadiya and cut off the areas they seized northeast of the city of Baquba, which is held by Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militias.
Government forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been trying for months to take over Jalawla and Saadiya, located northeast of Baghdad.
Islamic State swept through northern Iraq in the summer, facing little resistance from U.S.-trained government troops.
The group made up of Iraqis, other Arabs and foreign fighters then threatened to march on Baghdad, rattling the Shi'ite-led government.
Much may depend on whether the performance of Iraq's army and security forces improves.
Their advances over the weekend and other operations indicate they rely heavily on support from Shi'ite militias whose alleged human rights abuses against minority Sunnis have fueled sectarian bloodshed and helped destabilize Iraq.
The next major security operation is expected to target the town of Amriyat al-Falluja, located in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, just 40 km (25 miles) from Baghdad.
The Sunni insurgents have been surrounding it for weeks. Security officials said government forces are preparing to try and break the siege. Islamic State also appears to be gearing up for another battle.
Militants in the nearby town of Falluja, an Islamic State bastion, used loudspeakers attached to captured police vehicles to tell supporters to expect good news from Amriyat al-Falluja.
"Be cheerful. We have 100 suicide bombers preparing for the battle of Amriyat al-Falluja and we have more if the situation warrants," was the message conveyed, a witness told Reuters from Falluja.
(Additional reporting by Dasha Afanasieva in Mursitpinar; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Tom Heneghan)